One Man’s Sins

One Man’s Sins

As the news reports keep popping up on our phones, tablets and TV screens, we can’t help but wonder: “What if something really bad happens? What then? What will the world look like? Will we be the same as now?”
Most of the time the answer is ‘NO’, and film has been known as a medium used to search for answers that we cannot seem to find in the present world. Think about the Mad Max Trilogy and the latest installment by George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a wild, twisted ride into pure hellfire madness. It’s a vision of a world that has crumbled under the weight of mankind and unleashed creatures similar to beasts and demons. It is a comic book vision that represented the mindset of the late 1970s early 1980s; death, injustice and filth. However, the thing that always seemed to bother me about that series of movies is how fictional it is. Its focus is clearly pointed at the action setpieces shot in the Australian desert. We don’t treat it as a film; we treat it as a piece of entertainment.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was soon adapted into a movie back in 2009 and that to me was a game-changer. It brought up real, authentic, current day issues and spat them right into our faces. And as much as I’d like to write about The Road, I’m not going to, because I think there is a little Australian movie that did it even better and went by unnoticed by the general public. The movie I want to talk about is David Michod’s 2014 sleeper, The Rover. It’s an important one, trust me.

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Eric.
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Rey.

I’ve been trying to get people to watch The Rover because I strongly believe it’s a landmark in present day independent cinema. When it first came out in Cannes in 2014 it received terribly mixed reviews: there was the side that hated it and the side that loved it. Personally, it took me four sittings to really be able to grasp the genius of this movie. This is by no means an easy watch. It’s an engrossing slow-burner that features a maximum of two pages of dialogue. Let me get to the point. The Rover is a tale of morality and humanity that takes place as the title cards in the opening scene read: AUSTRALIA. TEN YEARS AFTER THE COLLAPSE. Like most post-apocalyptic films it doesn’t quite reveal what happened, what triggered the situation we find ourselves in. The film opens with a wide shot of the Australian wasteland. Silence. We’re in someone’s car and we’re looking at the owner of it, sitting in the driver’s seat, thinking, waiting. This is Eric (a phenomenal Guy Pearce), and he’s our leading man; a wiry, bearded, dirty middle-aged man who’s dressed in khaki shorts and a stained shirt. The world around him is a world of misery and desperation. The only people he meets are male prostitutes and old men sitting in empty bar rooms, hoping for a customer to come in and buy something.

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Loneliness.

As playwright David Mamet said: “The secret to any play or film is to have a character that wants something at all costs”, and that is exactly who Eric is. As he sits at the bar counter, three armed men steal his car. We can see in Eric’s eyes that nothing means more to him than that car of his. That’s all he wants. That’s all he cares about. He gets into a rusty truck and starts chasing the three men into the deep Australian wilderness. As the chase progresses, Eric encounters the younger brother of one of the three men. His name is Rey (Robert Pattinson at his finest, yes you heard me) and he’s “an idiot halfwit.” Eric uses Rey in order to find out where Rey’s brother is headed to. Don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t a movie about friendship and enemies who become comrades. There is none of that in the desolate world of The Rover.

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It is all about who will draw first.

As the film progresses, the viewer witnesses a moral tale about the fragility of humanity. The world Eric and Rey live in is realistic, unlike the comic book world of Mad Max and the dystopian, horror-like world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The secret of this movie lies in the way it unfolds like a religious parable. The rare spurts of violence are extremely brutal and bloody but at the same time quick and unfocused. The absence of long, deep and meaningful conversations helps build the heavy tone this movie carries throughout its entire runtime.
There is no reason in this world. Random strangers attack our two protagonists without any purpose. The only thing that rules this world is money. US dollars. Worthless paper. Its false value looms over the lives of the scattered survivors of the collapse. It seems as if Eric and Rey are the only individuals untouched by money. What does this tell us about them? They look like everybody else. They behave like everybody else, and yet they seem to be indifferent to any kind of material distraction. Their whole mission is to chase someone who stole Eric’s car. But the mission is not about the car. It’s about what is IN the car. It is something that drives Eric forward, that keeps him from falling into the pit everyone else has already fallen into a long time ago.

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Nothing is more terrifying than an empty world.

What makes The Rover such a compelling film is its complete indifference toward the viewer. The film unfolds without the participation of the viewer, almost as if David Michod, the director, didn’t want us to feel forced to watch it. To me, The Rover is a warning. Eric’s past can be interpreted as the past of a number of people. His incoming personal downfall would mean the downfall of the entire world. Because believe it or not, Eric still believes in something.
There is a scene, when Eric brings wounded Rey to a doctor’s clinic, where Eric enters a neon-lit room situated in the back of the clinic and finds a pyramid of cages containing stray dogs. He sits down, with tears in his eyes, and gazes at the poor animals. There is an understanding between man and beast here, and it shows a side to Eric which he tries to suppress as often as possible because he knows; once you let the world know you got a heart, everyone’s going to jump you and try to tear it out of your chest.

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Man’s best friend… trapped.

As they sit around a campfire, waiting to fall asleep, Rey recalls a little girl he killed by accident, and says: “I can’t stop thinking about her.” Now, think about it. In most Hollywood movies this scene would have ended up with Eric telling Rey not to worry about it, try to forget it, move on. The two would grow closer to one another and the movie would suddenly switch tones. But writer-director Michod plays his cards much more realistically, without the blink of an eye he lets Eric spit out the truth: “You shouldn’t. You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. That’s the price you pay for taking it.” After saying this, Eric walks off into the darkness to find a good place to sleep. The irony of this scene lies in the fact that we see Eric kill over half a dozen people without even acknowledging it. He shoots to kill. His act of killing is cold, ruthless and lacking any kind of second thought. His hand is rock steady unlike the hand of young Rey, the hand of an insecure boy who’s yet to see what the world is all about.

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Emptiness.

Michod’s camera captures the ruin of both the physical world as well as the psychological one. The slow tracking shots that follow Eric and Rey on their journey are there to shine a light on the scope of the destruction humans are capable of bringing on themselves. It is a slow dive into pure insanity where no laws are met and respected. To me, that’s much scarier than any horror movie out there; the sense of helplessness, despair and decay. The unnerving study of the dark side of humanity is something cinema has contemplated for a long time now. However, filmmakers tend to forget that in order to convey a message you need to show both sides of the conflict. In this case, The Rover deepens the cut by depicting glimpses of hope in Eric’s tired eyes. That’s the key to the lock. Once we learn to understand Eric, we learn to understand how The Rover works. One man’s sins are everybody’s.

That is why I think The Rover can be interpreted as a modern day parable about human vulnerability. It’s a simple story that lacks glamor and fantasy. It rides on grit, toughness… and weakness. The apocalypse of moral values. Emotions are all we’ve got, so what will happen when we lose those too?

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Even the hardest man will fall.

Satan’s Dance

Satan’s Dance

Trauma: what’s the best way of capturing it  without the use of words? Shaky cameras, a shell shock ringing and black and white flashbacks don’t work anymore. What Saving Private Ryan achieved for the very first time is now being rehashed in almost every single Hollywood blockbuster that is out there not to make a point but to cash in the revenues. That is why I was left feeling extremely overwhelmed once the credits to Waltz with Bashir started to roll over a black screen.
Waltz with Bashir, an Oscar nominated animated movie directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, is without a doubt one of the most innovative and interesting visual displays of trauma I’ve ever seen. It plays on so many different, unseen, original notes and touches upon some crucial cinematic themes that aren’t brought up enough in today’s world of cinema, that it creates a surreal aura around itself and enters perhaps my top 10 of the 2000s. Let’s have a look at why its approach to such a difficult phenomenon such as human trauma is so unique.

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Ali Folman, the aging protagonist, desperate for answers.

We’re talking about an animated film that tackles the filmmaker’s personal experience as a 19-year-old infantry soldier in the 1982 war with Lebanon who witnesses a ruthless massacre (Sabra and Shatila massacre – the killing of almost 3500 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians) unfold right before his eyes. As an adult he has a hard time remembering what he saw and can’t bring himself to find the right answers so he decides to seek out others who were in Beirut at the time to discuss their memories, including a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders and the first journalist to cover the massacre.
The film follows the filmmaker as he interviews his old friends and strangers, and shifts from the present to the past using the power of animation. This is where the secret lies – the animation. 

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Landscape of death and destruction.


Waltz with Bashir uses traditional hand-drawn animation that translates incredibly well onto the screen due to the fact that most of the original interviews were used as a template by artist Yoni Goodman. The film as a whole was first shot on a sound studio and then transferred to a storyboard. This allowed the illustrations to gain a certain feeling of movement and energy. The dark hues enabled the filmmaker to present his vision of an almost surreal, dream-like (as well as nightmarish) world where very little is certain and where people don’t act according to any set of rules. Don’t let this fool you.
Waltz with Bashir is very realistic. Some of its scenes reminded me of the great war movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket especially with its juxtaposed use of upbeat 80s Israeli pop music playing over images of explosions and destruction. But this isn’t the point. The point is that this film manages to create something refreshing out of something so nostalgic and “outdated” as classic animation in order to bring up the issue of trauma.

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Recalling the past.

The loss of memory and especially the loss of a memory as harsh as the witnessing of a massacre can be easily interpreted as an example of trauma. One does not forget the sight of dead bodies nor the sound of shots being fired at a mass of women and children. However, that is what happens to the protagonist. His personal trauma is the pain that comes from the realization that his mind has completely canceled out such a brutal memory, as if he was responsible for it, as if he was the man who pulled the trigger. Perhaps it is the weight of guilt and desperation brought on him by trauma that make him seek out the truth.
Perhaps it’s only for personal reasons. In fact, the filmmaker never raises his voice, he never manages to get as emotional as we would wish him to be. Ari Folman’s voice is monotonous, predictable and yet it transmits the feeling that this man has been through a lot. The same goes for the people he interviews. Six out of eight interviews present in the movie are authentic interviews conducted by the filmmaker himself prior to the making of this movie.
Some of the interviewees talk about war the way they talk about going for a beer in the evening. Their voices are flat and their descriptions become repetitive and oversimplified but it’s precisely that, that makes these interviews and the way they are displayed visually so powerful and gut-wrenching. The unscripted voices of these interviewees deepen the film’s message and turn simple animation into a document, a film essay where an invisible thesis is made and arguments are brought up by the people at the microphone.

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Animation has no limits.

The film opens like some kind of thunderous nightmare. A pack of dogs with shining teeth takes an entire city by surprise and creates chaos. The camera tracks the dogs as these strong, growling beasts make their way across streets, parks and squares, spreading panic and fear in the eyes of bystanders. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why these dogs are relevant, but we know one thing: it’s disturbing and unsettling.
This opening sequence turns out to be a nightmare dreamt by one of Folman’s old pals from the war and succeeds in transmitting to the audience the overall feel of the movie in a matter of two minutes. Dogs from hell and soldiers with machine guns – there is no palpable difference, says Folman. The soldiers with machine guns have no motivation to do what they do best but they still do it, just like those blood thirsty dogs that storm the city for no reason other than to cause chaos and destruction.

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Humanity unleashed.

In terms of visuals the movie is capable of conveying to the viewer where the present is and where the past takes over. Contemporary action unfolds with a much darker color palette, mainly using a contrast of black and orange  in order to create this neon-light effect that pulsates with a sense of nostalgia and regret. Most frames are occupied by one or two characters, reminiscent of documentary style filmmaking. Sometimes it’s just desolate landscapes, a silent night, filled with Max Richter’s moving classical score.

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When reality ends and dreams take over.

It is only when the movie shifts back to the past that the film assumes a different kind of spirit – a much more conventional one. The colors become  brighter and easier on the eye. There is a prominent use of light green and yellow; shadows are also used to present a very realistic depth of field. The storytelling is visual, helped by an omnipresent voice-over narration that shift from various perspectives depending on the interviewee.
If carefully analyzed, one can  come to the conclusion that this method of storytelling is the epitome of experiencing a traumatic event. In a sense, these shifting perspectives represent the human mind playing tricks on us. The story spins around on it itself but it never manages to find a firm safe point; every account that is being told is doubtful, ambiguous and unreliable. As I sat down and watched this movie I never felt sure of the next step – it always felt as if I was watching a number of different unrelated stories put together as a whole in order to fool me, in order to feed me something that at the end turns out to be something else. Folman’s trauma is unraveled step by step like a play constructed of different acts. His memory loss reflects an attitude of a man who fears himself, fears what he is capable of and what the people around him are capable of.

The world of Waltz with Bashir is populated by normal, everyday people who at times, depending on the situation, can turn into blood thirsty hounds, willing to kill an entire city just for the simple taste of blood. And I think that that is one of the most accurate depictions of trauma you’ll ever find on the silver screen.

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Nothing comes easy.

The Gaze

The Gaze

Today I want to talk about the act of looking in film. Looking is perhaps the simplest activity one can do. You just open your eyes, and that’s it – you’re looking. When we see a movie we look at the screen, we look at the characters, we look at the story unfold.
One thing about looking in film is that we often confuse the act of looking with the act of witnessing something. A lot of movies nowadays feel extremely distant, and not because of their plots or the narrative they use, but because they aim to tell a story without needing the participation of the viewer. Witnessing a movie means trying to figure out what’s going on. Usually when people get into an argument on screen we feel detached from their reality. We feel like a bunch of intruders walking into the lives of those strange people. We’re clearly unwanted.
Then there is looking, and looking, if done right, can be the epitome of a true cinematic experience. When we look at a film, at a story, at a moving frame, we’re not viewers anymore. We’re more than that. We’re participants. That is why today I chose Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime film from 1970, Le Cercle Rouge, to try and make an argument about the importance of the act of looking.

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Looking as a key to everything you could ever wish for.

Le Cercle Rouge could be considered by the average viewer a typical crime film with the policeman chasing the bad guys, but trust me. It is more than what’s on the surface. The film’s cast is pure French acting royalty: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte and Andre Bourvil. And the remarkable thing about this cast of actors is that their chemistry does not get in the way of the story. It is not underwhelming and at the same time it is far from overwhelming. They are just there. Doing what they’re paid to do.
However, what stands out the most about these actors is their capability of looking at each other and conveying a thought just with the use of the simple act of looking. When Delon looks at the camera we get reassurance and inner peace.  When Montand looks at a mirror we get insecurity and error. When it is Volonte’s turn we get wit and perseverance. And at last, when Bourvil confronts us with his eyes we get compassion and arrogance.
This film (much like the rest of Melville’s filmography) is mostly based on the physicality of the action that takes place in the unfolding of the story. Le Cercle Rouge has in fact a simple plot, very little dialogue and whenever a character says something, the sentences are very robotic, characterized by quick rhythm and low intonation. Most secondary characters that appear in this movie have very little to say but an awful lot to do: they engage in gunfights, beatings, car chases and manhunts. Melville does not care about character development or inspirational speeches made during the last five minutes. No. What he does care about is telling a story through the use of movement captured on camera. His attention to detail is perhaps only matched by the likes of Bresson and Hitchcock.

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Is there any difference between the power of a cold look and a pointed gun?

In order to present the following scene I’ll just set it up nicely for those of you have yet to watch the film. The three robbers are planning to steal huge amounts of jewelry and diamonds and sell them on the black market to a trusted buyer.  The heist is to take place in a security covered building where every inch of the area is being monitored by cameras, wires and motion detectors. The jewels are hidden inside bulletproof glass vaults. The heist sequence is in theory very basic, but the way Melville manages to sell it to us is remarkable. There is no dialogue for the entire 25 minutes.
Clearly inspired by its French noir predecessor, Rififi, and its earlier Hollywood take, The Asphalt Jungle, Melville’s crime thriller observes the heist taking place not from the perspective of a random bystander or witness (something usually found in the Bourne Trilogy or even in a movie like Captain Phillips) but rather with the eyes of the camera hidden in the far corner of the room.
The lack of any major sound or music during this sequence not only helps in making the action seem smoother and more realistic but it also serves to heighten the tension of each step one of the three robbers take in order to get to the jewels. Each movement comes at a price and as you wait for something bad to happen, Melville drags you into his world by making you observe what most of us would usually consider to be boring, uneventful and uninteresting. It is the simplicity of what you see that makes this entire watch incredibly special and unlike anything you’ll encounter in most crime thrillers of Hollywood production.

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The three robbers in their own little worlds.

Another topic I want to cover is the way the characters interact with one another. Most scenes include only one or two of the main characters together, separating each storyline and creating a sense of alienation within the criminal underworld these characters belong to. Alain Delon’s Corey is the one character we get to observe the most. Delon’s on-screen presence is very demanding and the attention he brings to himself even in scenes where he meets other characters, such as fellow gangsters or mob bosses, is the trademark of this movie. It seems as if he’s always capable of transmitting a certain sense of hostility with little to no effort. When he teams up with Volonte and Montand’s characters, he behaves just as he did when he acted on his own. His dead-pan expression turns the observer into the observed. While the remaining characters often face mirrors and reflections of themselves, and usually they reflect upon the sight of it, Delon is the one who faces the camera more frequently than anybody else without even blinking an eye. As much as we get to look at him we really don’t know if he’s good or bad, or if we should even be rooting for him at all. His gaze is a challenge to the viewer, a pit-stop on the 2h20 long journey this movie has to offer.
Each character we meet on this journey is unaffected by the people around him. What I mean is, the environment does not offer any kind of change. The environment, similarly to the characters, is just there, because it has to be there. There is no sense of palpable change, the atmosphere is the same all the way through and that is perhaps due to the fact that Melville insists on making his viewers pay attention to the physical, material details, rather than the abstract, the spiritual.
It is safe to say that this movie is one of the ‘manliest’ movies ever made because of how well structured it is and simultaneously stripped of any useless (in Melville’s opinion) cinematic layers such as plot, character development and a conclusion.

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The challenge.

The act of looking is a deadly weapon. You see the right things and you immediately have the upper hand. Melville says, ‘Trust me.’

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Who’s got the upper hand now?

 

Hateful Love

Hateful Love

Creating conflict in film is an extremely hard task to carry out. The characters must be believable, their actions must be motivated and triggered by something, the dialogue and the action cannot fall flat and the whole story must end with some kind of development. Conflict cannot be stagnant. Many writers have failed in delivering an honest depiction of conflict, they usually get caught up in their words, they fall in love with them, and end up writing a very robotic screenplay.
Take August: Osage County, the 2013 Oscar nominated movie about a shattered family getting back together after the death of a family member, based on a play by the same title. What it tried to achieve was a violent portrayal of a family falling to pieces, mothers, daughters and sons turning their backs on each other. What it failed to do was to make the conflict feel human. The characters, mainly the ones played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, are incredibly artificial in the way they function. There is nothing human about them and the way they act. Everything seems make-belive for the screen and in fact, it is. And that’s why it failed so miserably at telling a story that could have been otherwise special and significant in terms of its underlying themes. 
Glengarry Glen Ross, 
on the other hand, also based on Mamet’s play (who also wrote the script for the movie) succeeds in creating conflict because of the setting it uses. The characters act like robots because of the environment they find themselves operating in. Their world has no mercy. A real estate firm that is struggling to stay afloat. It is the reason for their hostility towards each other, it keeps them going; their mission is to make it until the end of the day. Dog eat dog, and it works.
However, today I want to go over a film that perhaps initiated this whole verbal war of two or more parties. A film that was directed by a masterful artist who knew how the human mind worked but wanted to know more, wanted to get to the core of it. This man, Ingmar Bergman, was intrigued by relationships and life in general, and there is no finer example for this than his drama made in 1978, Autumn Sonata.

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Ingrid Bergman’s finest hour right before her death couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the theme this particular movie tackles. Ingrid Bergman (in no way related to the director of this film) was the star of the 1940s and 1950s. She was hailed as the greatest actress of the decade after her performance in the legendary Casablanca. She was the foreign movie star that made it big on the silver screen. Later on in the late 1940s she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian neo realist, and they began making movies together (Stromboli, Journey to Italy, Europe ’51) and that sealed her legacy as one of the very best actresses of world cinema. That is why her performance in Autumn Sonata is so fitting. In the movie, Bergman plays Charlotte Andergast, a successful classical pianist, who sacrificed her responsibilities as a mother of two for the sake of her career. Bergman herself admitted that this was the most personal screenplay she had ever worked on as she felt responsible for abandoning her home and her family in order to chase fame, glory and romance. But I’m not here to gossip, I’m here to talk about the on-going conflict presented in this picture.

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Music as the key to destruction.

The two characters, mother and daughter, Charlotte and Eva, haven’t seen each other in almost seven years. Charlotte is invited to stay over for a few days after the death of her companion, Leonard. Mother and daughter come together. The pain that comes with the insecurity of looking at each other is unbearable for both of them. What is remarkable about this conflict is that at first it is not open. It is kept shut, suppressed by excitement and fear. Eva smiles, stares down at her feet or straight at the walls of her house located in the Norwegian countryside. Charlotte, on the other hand, laughs it off, makes herself comfortable and when she finds herself alone in the guest room she starts talking to herself. She talks because it is her only method of making sure there is still a heart beating inside of her. We get two sides for each of these two women. Charlotte seems tough, successful and well respected but it turns out it’s the other way around. She suffers like every other mortal, she is haunted by bad decisions and countless regrets. Eva is the child that suffered the most, along with her younger sister who is victim of a paralyzing illness.

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Ingmar Bergman builds the story bit by bit and that is the key to Autumn Sonata’s effectiveness. He takes his time but lays out the clues early on when Eva’s husband speaks directly to the camera in the opening scene telling us about Eva’s disturbed past and her quest to make amends with her mother. Right from the start we get a glimpse of the tragedy that has loomed over Eva’s family. Charlotte is her biggest enemy and at the same time the person who was supposed to be her closest friend. The drama between these two works like clockwork, with Eva battling her insecurities and slowly opening up and letting out her frustrations in an extremely emotional confrontation, where she ends up stuttering, breaking into a maniacal, uncontrollable cry.
And right here, Ingmar Bergman’s brilliance in handling emotions on screen comes into play. As I sat watching this scene unfold with my jaw dropped I could not help but think to myself how unfair Eva is being toward her own mother. Why? After all, Eva had her reasons, Charlotte was always cold toward her own child, she did nothing but escape difficult situations, she cheated on her husband and took pleasure in spending most of her time far away from home. And yet… somehow I managed to understand her. I did not sympathize but I could understand both perspectives. Charlotte’s life was struck by a wave of success and glory while Eva’s was haunted by the lack of motherly love and appreciation.
There is a certain balance in the suffering of the two women. Both are very different, age-wise but also character-wise. Charlotte acts tough. Eva, on the other hand, is the vulnerable little girl. But both are wearing masks and both are afraid to reveal their true identities. Like in his earlier, most famous work, Persona, Bergman plays with the idea of identity and the weight it carries. In Persona the women suddenly merge into one, they become one unit. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is too thick and sets mother and daughter apart. There is a feeling of frustration when watching the scenes unfold. The viewer seeks truth and yet there are lies in each point of view. Charlotte’s vague memory is not enough to make us believe her, and Eva’s raw, emotional account of her childhood is perhaps too honest to believe.
What stands out in this conflict is the fact that there is no mention of a tragic event that initiated the whole affair. In most movies there is always that one incident of violence that sets the tone for a relationship (think Rain Man and the hot water accident that became the reason for Dustin Hoffman character’s institutionalization) and becomes the main theme of the movie. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is genuine because of its slow creation. It’s a matter of years of emotional struggle rather than one moment of carelessness or evil. Both characters have grown over the years, their paths have gone different ways but what ties them is the past built on countless moments of miscommunication and emotional absence. Bergman stages this film like a play, where characters’ thoughts are expressed aloud almost as if the actors were reading the script to an audience. The action is present, the viewer is in the moment along with the cast of characters. Bergman doesn’t believe in distance, his camera is always intimate, at times too intimate and it can lead to being almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch. Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman play off each other like normal humans would do. There is an honest reflection in their delivery but there is also a hidden hostility toward the characters they play. It is as if they were forced to be there, to play those parts, and they want to get rid of the burden because it is too much to handle. It is, after all, a beautiful tragedy that spares no one. It is a conflict of words rather than action. It is a conflict that still speaks to us. And rightly so.

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Child of America

Child of America

Why are independent movies so important to the film industry nowadays? Look closer and you’ll see that before and after 9/11 independent movies began to emerge onto the big stage. In the last few years there’s been three independent Best Picture winners; MoonlightSpotlight and Birdman. Among other Oscar winning movies in recent years you have RoomWhiplashBoyhoodBeasts of the Southern WildEx MachinaLittle Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and many, many more. It is evident that something must have happened within the industry and the way people, celebrities and critics react to low budget movies for independent cinema to become so popular and well liked. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Academy has changed its available slots for Best Picture (used to be five, now it is ten) and has allowed more room for the nominees, more flexibility. It can also be the outcome of better distribution and marketing, or maybe the importance of independently-oriented film festivals such as Sundance or Telluride has grown significantly in recent years.
Everything comes down to where it all started. What movie initiated this? I think I have an idea of what it was. When it came out it wasn’t popular at all, it made little to no money, it was shot on reversal 16mm, a very underused lens even in today’s age of experimental arthouse cinema, and it didn’t have any big name actors aside from a couple of fading stars. In other words, it was the epitome of what an independent film should be. The movie I’ve decided to write about is Buffalo ’66, a little gem from 1998, a true game-changer that made people realize how unique an independent movie (aside from low budget documentaries) can really be in order to stand out in a money-ruled industry.

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“Make me look good. Just shut up and make me look good.”

Buffalo ’66 is getting more and more recognition as the years go by. It launched a short but lively career for actress Christina Ricci and introduced the mysterious, unstable figure of Vincent Gallo to the world of media. It established a certain artsy quality, the one you could find in French New Wave cinema, to independent filmmaking and represented a ‘return to the roots’ similar to the first low budget films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi).
Billy, played by Gallo himself, is your average Joe who spent the last few years in prison for a crime he did not commit but for some strange reason took upon himself, ruining his own life, drifting further away from his family and what he knew as the real world. Once he comes out, everything seems to have changed. It’s colder, the streets are covered with snow, the city is deserted, nothing is quite the way it used to be. He decides to avenge his past suffering by killing the man who was responsible for making him lose the bet that changed his whole life for the worse – a football player for the Buffalo Bills that failed to make the game-winning field goal in the Superbowl and is now the owner of a prominent strip club in Woodlawn, New York. But first, he has to do the one thing that really pains him and that is – visit his parents. In order to do this he kidnaps Layla (played by the once beautiful Christina Ricci) and forces her to act as his beloved wife, making him look good in front of his judgmental father (Ben Gazzara) and his absent, football-loving mother (Anjelica Huston).

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This is Billy. Miserable, isn’t he?

What at first glance seems to be your traditional crime drama soon turns your expectations upside down and you can be sure of it, steals your heart. Because Buffalo ’66 is not about guns, fights and tough character. It is precisely about the opposite; about feelings, innocence and the lost masculinity of the average American man. It is pretty ironic how Vincent Gallo mistreated Christina Ricci, verbally abusing her on set, criticized the film’s cinematographer, taking all the credit for his work and all around behaved like a bully. But sometimes artists are the opposite of perfect. Buffalo ’66 accurately depicts the message Gallo wanted to transmit. The character of Billy acts tough, curses and plays the part of the ex-con but at the heart of it, he is one of the most vulnerable and insecure characters ever portrayed on screen. Think of it, even the name ‘Billy’ is not the name you’d expect from someone who uses the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence and kidnaps a girl for odd reasons. As he emerges from the prison building, Billy appears to be a very slim man, his long arms and long legs make him look like a cartoon character more than a cinematic one. His body language is that of a man who hasn’t fully grown yet, haunted by bad memories, a troubled childhood and an unknown future. He wanders outside the state penitentiary with his arms crossed, shaking because of the cold, and in need of a quick visit to the bathroom. In other words, Billy doesn’t come off as glamorous and confident, instead he is the character we usually tend to expect to be playing a supporting role. Well, now here he is, says Gallo, this loser is your protagonist, deal with it.

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You thought telephone conversations couldn’t be painful, huh?

Layla, on the other hand, is not your traditional leading female character. She is just a teenager, with the features, as pointed out by Billy’s father, of a grown woman (lovely face, large, firm breasts) but the spirit of a young, untamed schoolgirl. Layla’s existence is a statement from Gallo against conventional cinema, the expectations it builds up and usually fails to deliver. What starts off as a sloppy kidnapping, slowly but effectively turns into a story about two souls who really do not fit this earth, no matter what they do. Their actions are unreasonable, they are unable to communicate, and it feels like they live in a transparent bubble, locked away from the ‘normal’ American citizens. In some way or another, Billy and Layla represent independent filmmaking. They do not fit the system, they do not have friends, lovers nor reliable relatives. They are on their own, fighting against the odds with minimal expectations for a positive outcome.

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Layla and her looks.

Billy’s actions have no real goal. His visit to his family home in Buffalo turns out to be a total disaster. He stops at on the front porch, kneels down and starts to feel dizzy. Memories rush to his head. Layla is unable to help him. She tries to comfort him but he swats her hand away, telling her he’s absolutely fine. And yet there he is, sitting next to his kidnapped victim, twisting in pain and looking more miserable than ever. Once he decides to step in and ring the door bell everything goes from bad to worse. His father is a nervous wreck, bored with his life, lacking anything to show for it; his mother is a football fanatic that operates like a robot and doesn’t leave the TV set for a split second. Both parents have absolutely wiped out any sort of memory from Billy’s troubled childhood. In fact, they only one photograph of him from when he was a little boy.
The whole scene at the family dinner table is shot like a scene from a movie by Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, with the static camera placed on the same level as the characters, making it all look even less cinematic. It is against Hollywood conventions, it throws the awkwardness of the scene, the difficulty of communication between parents and son and the ridiculousness of the characters right at you. At times it can turn out to be hilarious and yet it also feels painful to watch. It’s drama wrapped in comedy and heartache. Like independent filmmaking, the visit to the family place represents a risk. It is a challenge that an average Joe like Billy has to face in order to make things right or as he says to Layla, ‘Make it look good, make me look good.’ For Billy even the slightest incident or remark from Layla’s or his parents’ part is a genuine difficulty and represents a threat to his own story, his own existence. Billy is not William. He is still the innocent child who has trouble keeping up with the adults. It’s the small time director having trouble keeping up with the blockbusters at the box office. It’s art having trouble keeping up with the wake of modern technology such as portable camcorders, mobile phones and computers. 

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The struggle between father and son.

Buffalo ’66 is the struggle of the crook, the criminal, the blue collar worker. And that is why it is so gripping, painful and unique. It deals with palpable subject matters, it is about the real world and real characters. It is about vulnerability, and who the hell in the 90s, a time of Tarantino movies and Schwarzenegger action blockbusters, had any interest mentioning that ‘girly’ stuff? Well, independent cinema thought otherwise. And perhaps that is the reason why today’s independent movies like Little Miss Sunshine with its family of misfits, Moonlight with its insecure, black gay protagonist, and Birdman, with its washed up actor, make it big by telling unconventional stories. They all aspire, without even knowing, to the simplicity of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.

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The Janitor in all of Us

The Janitor in all of Us

I want to talk about what it means for a character to be ‘contemporary’ because we hear that word being thrown around a lot lately. ‘Contemporary’ best describes something that is happening right now, right this second. It is an observation of the present time and something that applies to a large group of people. Some performances are so contemporary that they end being trapped in their small present universe and have trouble being recognized in the later decades. Think any performance by James Stewart, Sidney Poitier or even Lauren Bacall. At the time of their ‘creation’ they were considered to be the top form of acting and yet, as we look back upon them now we get the feeling that something is not right. Something doesn’t fit the picture anymore and it gets under our skin forcing us to ask ourselves how come the distance between the viewer and the character is so palpable. Well, sometimes you stumble into a performance that is so contemporary to the point it becomes timeless, and not for its myth, but for its raw, larger than life depiction and delivery. Think Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, a performance that was meant to embody the anger and frustration of Martin Scorsese’s generation and still manages to surprise us up to this day. Think Sean Penn in Mystic River, where we get the brutal portrayal of an everyday man desperate to avenge his daughter’s murder. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, the story of an oilman at the beginning of the 19th century who gives up his entire life in order to become rich. And finally, think Casey Affleck in this year’s Manchester by the Sea. Yes, Casey Affleck’s character is more relevant than ever and will be for a long time to come. Why? Go on, have a read.

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Welcome to Lee’s empty world.

Lee Chandler is the name of the character. He is a middle-aged janitor and handyman working in a few apartment buildings in Boston, who seems to have trouble dealing with everyday life and the people surrounding him. He is enveloped in his own little world and is hesitant to come out of it. For some odd reason we are not surprised. On the other hand, every now and then we witness these flashbacks that show us the young Lee Chandler, a boyish fisherman from a little town up north, by the sea, who spends his days fishing, sailing and playing around with his brother (Kyle Chandler in a very Marc Ruffalo-esque role) and his nephew, little Patrick. The past almost merges with the present and sometimes it is not easy to distinguish which one is which. In fact, this difficulty in pointing out the past and the present helps the film’s character development in a major way. We get the side of free, almost teenager Lee who enjoys drinking, playing table tennis, partying with his friends but also enjoys taking care of his family, his wife, his two daughters and his youngest son. Then something happens. A real tragedy. A point of no return. And the past inevitably triggers the present. Lee is transformed by a series of dramatic events. The present is just as painful as the past, says writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me; Margaret), and there is no way of denying it when Lee, busy shoveling piles of snow and clearing someone’s toilet, receives a phone call from the hospital up in Manchester telling him his beloved older brother just died of a fatal heart attack. Tragedy follows Lee as he quits the job and drives out to his hometown in order to take care of the funeral arrangements. There is one problem though, Patrick, Lee’s nephew, is now to be taken care of by Lee himself, nominated in his brother’s will as the boy’s guardian. And that is when we get Casey Affleck’s full range as an actor.

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The beast in me.

What makes this powerhouse of a performance so contemporary is the way the actor manges to bottle up any kind of emotion and at the same time produce the triple amount of feeling for the character to be human and realistic. Lee Chandler is a walking zombie, empty and at the same time filled to the brim, close to self destruction, without any real purpose to his life. He breathes because his body tells him to do so. He walks because his legs and muscles are still intact, but there is nothing more than a bunch of memories stuck inside of his heart. Affleck’s job is tougher than it looks. He has to play a character without any ambition, without any goal or presence, and still make him look human. His body language is very simple, trapped in a cage, unable to do more than one thing at a time, unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Let’s face it, whatever Lee had to offer to the world, he doesn’t have it anymore. He’s like a dried-up well, a machine that is oiled enough to perform the same task over and over again. So why do we empathize with such an uninteresting character? How come we’re drawn to a person lacking any real identity? After all, we’ve seen so many similar characters fail because of the actors’ inability to transmit any feeling or story, more like shadows than bodies. Instead, Affleck is different. There is a rare intensity to his acting, the kind you usually find in Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting, or even the acting of the glory days of young Pacino. The intensity comes from the physical as well as ‘spiritual’ silence of the character. The little bursts of violence and frustration we get out of Lee happen only when he’s drunk enough to get into a meaningless brawl in a bar. That’s when the viewer has the rare possibility of getting a glimpse at the tamed beast resting within Lee, similarly to Sean Penn’s character in Mystic River, who seems quiet and controlled throughout most of the movie with the exception of the scene where he discovers his daughter’s dead body and explodes into a maniacal rage. In this case, the fireworks aren’t that potent, but it still is a beautiful example of how a subtle performance can turn a quiet character into a powerful, dominating on-screen presence. Lee is a human wreck we should all be capable of understanding. The struggle in his eyes, his gestures, is a very realistic one. It is not a fantasy story and that is also why Manchester by the Sea, a small indie film produced by Amazon studios is racking up all the awards right now: because it deals with reality in a very non-Hollywood, gritty way. Lee’s actions are human, difficult to justify, sometimes illogical but that is precisely why he is so believable and present when we see him on the silver screen. Affleck has always been in my opinion an extremely underrated actor, able bring humanity even to the most despicable characters such as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He subtracts the masculinity everyone seeks nowadays and adds a shattered, broken quality that makes everything seem more natural and at the same time, more difficult to understand. Most viewers don’t like to be played around with but that’s what great actors do, they play around and toy with your emotions. Lee Chandler is like that, he confronts himself, his ex-wife and you, the viewer. He makes you grit your teeth. And it hurts.

Welcome to reality.

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Failure, pain, realization.

They Worship Everything and Value Nothing

They Worship Everything and Value Nothing

Originality.  What is originality? For starters, it’s an idea.  A unique idea that tackles different subjects in a unique, personal way.  This year in particular has been a blessing to original movies such as Elle by Paul Verhoeven, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and even Everybody Wants Some!! by Richard Linklater.   We live in an age where indie movies rule the awards’ shows and rock the box office.  Manchester by the Sea, this year’s heartbreaker is racking up awards and it was produced by Amazon (!).  But I’m here to talk about a movie that has been on my mind ever since I saw it twice in the theater: LA LA LAND, ladies and gentlemen.  The best movie of 2016.  A movie so fresh, so vibrant, exciting and original that you just want to embrace it and kiss the screen.  At least, that was me when the credits rolled.  Should you see it? Yes. Don’t like musicals?  See it, won’t be a problem.  Why?  Here we go;

Musicals have shaped the way we understand music in cinema.  Musicals allowed viewers to contemplate beautiful set designs and jaw dropping dance sequences in movies such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Guys and Dolls.  Their favorite stars, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, were given the opportunity to showcase their full range of musical talent and when their movies hit the theaters it was a huge show.  But eventually the whole formula wore down by the end of the 60s.  Probably the last successful musical (and it was very unexpected at the time) was the best picture winner of 2002, Chicago.  Then everything felt silent until a couple of years ago with the release of the atrocious remake of Annie, which failed both critically and commercially.  Now, two years later, almost three, and La La Land is in pole position to win the Oscar for best picture of the year.  And why is that?  Why does all of a sudden a musical out of all the brilliant films that came out this year (Silence, Sully, Arrival, Moonlight, Hell or High Water, De Palma; Hail, Caesar! among many many more) come out on top with critical acclaim and financial success?  After all it’s Damian Chazelle’s only second feature film (after the thrilling and just as successful Whiplash) and it doesn’t contain a star studded cast like Chicago did.  Sure, the two protagonists are played by two of the biggest stars of modern day Hollywood but a musical by definition stays a musical and people nowadays are very reluctant toward such an ‘old fashioned’ genre. BUT don’t listen to them. La La Land is a film that uses the musical side in order to make the love story more profound. It doesn’t rely on it. It uses it. Music, in fact, is a perfect instrument, which, if used properly, can play a big role in the delivery of a movie’s message.  We all saw how brilliant Damian Chazelle was in using music in Whiplash as the centerpiece of the story without making it unbearable for us to cope with.  Music was the engine of Whiplash and the reason for the characters’ development.  It inspired and terrorized Andrew (Miles Teller) and eventually made of him an obsessed monster just as it had done years before that with the cruel Mr. Fletcher (JK Simmons).  Now, La La Land, as the title suggests, is a movie about dreams, about confronting fantasy with reality, and about the cost of love and the sacrifice that goes with it.  The two main characters, Mia and Sebastian, represent today’s hidden youth. I say hidden because these are authentic people, who have real interests, needs and ambitions.  They want to live and want to live their lives without anyone telling them as to what to do, something that is rarely seen among today’s young generation.  Music expresses their existence.

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Music is reason. A representation of life.

So why is it so fresh and exciting?  Because it is not a coming-of-age story, it is not a melodrama, it is not a chick-flick, and it is not a comedy.  It is an achievement built on pure love for cinema.  Chazelle, 32, and already one of the very best in the business with a bright future ahead of him, paints the screen with beautiful images that make us recall the old movies, the experience of seeing the film on color and sound, with a rich palette (shot on breathtaking Cinemascope lens), that ranges from dark purple to light red and an endless sea of blue.  It is a celebration of filmmaking. It opens with a musical piece accompanied by an astonishing tracking shot that covers an entire lane on the LA motorway with dancers and stuntmen giving it their all and setting the tone for the rest of the film.  It’s there and then that we meet both characters and we immediately understand what kind of people they are; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a young man who loves Jazz and demands the best out of himself, and then Mia (Emma Stone), a pretty and goofy girl who loves acting more than anything in the world.  They find themselves in similar situations; they are hungry not for success but for personal glory, the feeling of accomplishment, of doing something that they like and that sets them apart from the average Joe with a suitcase and a shirt and tie.  They want to prove themselves. Sebastian’s goal is to save Jazz and Mia’s desire is to express what she’s been bottling up her whole life.  And that is why the use of music is essential.  When the music takes over the true faces of these two young people appear before us and demand our attention.  Their dancing and singing is how they communicate and bond.  At first there isn’t much to their relationship but soon they become lovers of a whole new generation.  They are honest and they fight through a shitstorm of bureaucracy, rules and social norms. Together they become the modern day couple and as we follow them fall in love, we come to the point where we realize that their love is beautiful precisely because it comes at a price and decisions have to be made.  I won’t say much more than that.  Go see it.  All I can say is this; with two breathtaking performances given by two amazing actors, who remind us of the great pairings of the 50s such as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and the direction of a young man who understands music, its power and significance not only in cinema but in real life too, and treats the history of the silver screen with maturity and respect, this musical tackles the subject of dreams, passion, desire and the fragility of love with incredible subtlety and experience.  It doesn’t push its message and it doesn’t try to sell it either.  It is similar to a painting; it allows you to see things only you can see in your own, personal way.

That’s originality.

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Love in motion and color.